“I think pop music always builds on itself. There’s this general vibe we’re going for, and in my brain I go through at most 20 pop trope themes. Let’s take this idea and try to do it in a different way.” ~Patrick Donohoe
There’s a bit of irony when matching the definition of the word finesse to the band Finesse. Jeff Cornell and Patrick Donohoe are anything but subtle, although there is certainly a delicacy in their style of music. A pop duo inspired by 1982 when the peak of synth keyboards were sounding the best, Finesse blends New Wave, synth-pop, and electronic music together. There are themes of longing and celebration in the lyrics, bedded with mirrorball arrangements and jaunting melodies. This synthetic-soul mural is immediately recognizable and unique.
Both Jeff and Patrick have been in more serious bands over the years, but with Finesse, the main difference is there is nothing off the table.
“You know this cheesy part in that one song that I wouldn’t tell anyone about?” Jeff shares “We should do something like that.” Patrick echos this sentiment and has no shame with breaking out Brittney Spears or Madonna for inspiration. In this way, Finesse is more genuine by not needing to put up a facade. They show their pop tastes without shame or criticism. As the lyricist, Patrick loves to write something just joyful and fun. In today’s world, we all need more of that attitude because there is enough stuff out there to drag you down. Jeff adds, “That’s why I connect with 80’s music even though I was born in 92′. The 90’s music felt like a very real-world perspective and it sucked. Escapism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need it in darker times.”
Even though they are billed as a synth/electronic band, writing is still fairly traditional. More confident on the guitar, Jeff usually utilizes the string instrument to find the right chords to dump them into the software. Jeff then writes out the music for the song; verse, chorus, bridge. He keeps it very linear and adds chords and melodies, all within the laptop. The computer then helps by making it easy to move and shift things around. Patrick shares that Jeff has a very unique ability in finding aesthetics for a song.
“When I hear music, I don’t hear lyrics. I don’t know the lyrics to my favorite songs. I do hear the melodies, the sonic textures, and the feel of the chords together,” Jeff confides.
Patrick is then able to come up with lyrics that match the sounds and tones. Oftentimes they both create a ‘mood board’ where they compile different lyrics and vibes together. There’s always a light-bulb moment for Patrick in matching the lyrics to the proper aesthetic. Lyrics then become the thematic vibe.
The song then reveals itself as it goes. “Waiting Game” is one example of this. The clock part was conceptualized and added toward the completion of the song. They asked themselves, what if we added in a really deliberate tick-tock of a clock? “It’s stupid cause it’s so obvious, but we loved it. I feel like we write with music videos in mind and I could just see the hands of the clock starting off the song.” Jeff explains. For Patrick, finding the hook and moment where everyone can sing along brings the song together.
Break the Steel
The basic concept of “Break the Steel” is wanting to write a pop song about feeling proud of seeing your partner succeed. It’s not about yourself, not about us, and not even about love. It’s about wanting to witness someone do great things. The song is a celebration of that feeling, with no strings attached. The term “break the steel” was written about getting out of a rut and just being yourself. As Patrick says, “There’s enough pressure on everybody already. Get out of what anyone expects and just do well. When you can see other people doing well, we all feel good.”
“Break the steel that holds you here
No more fear, no desire lines”
If there’s one trait that carries through on all Finesse songs, it’s the idea of being hyper genuine. It’s 100% feelings. Patrick writes lyrics with the intention of keeping them as open as possible so people can easily relate. When writing positive music, it becomes more rewarding to perform and share the songs. They aren’t carrying any baggage or negative feelings.
“The world at your feet, the look in your eyes
Breathes new life
When you’re feeling proud, I can’t touch the ground”
The ending of the song has a prolonged instrumental jam. It was a decision made when Jeff brought the idea to Patrick, looping the ending for a moment of indulgence with a guitar solo. “When we say nothings off the table, that’s real. Things that are cheesy, or over the top, or too much, are all possibilities,” claims Jeff. This indulgence gives the ending of the song the perfect feeling. Patrick knows there’s plenty of self-indulgence in their writing, but when it’s completed, it always just feels right in what the song needed. “Break the Steel” is a prime example of that payoff and the character of Finesse as a band.
In the past, Jeff would often compose arrangements that would sometimes be too dense. The lyrics would be something added in the end as an afterthought. “Waiting Game” was written stripped back with the intention of Patrick filling it up with vocals. The vibe of the music was inspired by Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” and, as Jeff and Patrick share, it’s their techno jock jam song.
“You’re hiding in plain sight and I, I gave it all away
You keep searching searching seaching
for hope in a changing world”
The song delivers a strong feeling of unrequited love. When asked if the message is telling us to move on or wait for something, Patrick responds that it’s a little of both. “It’s an emotion that everyone has had, the feeling of longing for someone. I love this person, but what’s going to happen? That kind of uncertainty. You may tell yourself that you’re not going to do this, but you always do.”
“But I can’t keep faith in fool’s paradise”
There’s this brilliant hint in the line above where we all know the situation is not the best thing to think about, but we just don’t care. It’s the dream that remains stuck in our head. We all long for this proverbial paradise, but also we’re idiots for wanting it and not letting go.
The song gives us a pretty straightforward melody, but there’s an emotional outbreak that happens during the chorus which stands out. The inflection of Patrick’s voice opens the curtain and gives us that personal connection to the singer.
“In your heart, it’s all the same
I can’t play the waiting game
In your target, I’m your aim”
In synth-based music, sounds and textures can come from anywhere. Between the large catalog of software keyboards and hardware, Finesse constantly returns to an 80s gem. When the Yamaha DX7 was released, everyone bypassed the presets. As far as synth-pop is concerned, up until 2013 everyone had this perception of “never use the DX7.” Those presets are now a source of inspiration and a starting point for Finesse. They acknowledge it can be a little cheesy, but why not lean into those sounds. As mentioned before, nothing is off the table with Finesse. Ultimately, the equipment and software used is a mere detail in what matters.
“I hear so many songs where I don’t care what they used to record it. It sounds awesome because the song is awesome. The impact of the song is more important than the gear that was used.” ~Jeff Cornell
Electronic music doesn’t carry the same set of challenges in recording as acoustic instruments. When tracking music through software, you can plug in the cord and get a wide choice of sounds. It’s easy to make changes. The challenge comes during the mixing stage. You can quickly fill up a song with sounds that sometimes don’t match. There’s only so much you can do to affect a preset sound in software and make everything mesh together.
Finesse is a band who thrives on indulgence and running with an idea. Their ability to squeeze together sounds and create an all-encompassing mood of a song is impressive. It shows their innovative talent and attitude of truly leaving nothing off the table. For the audience, they provide plenty of danceable music and moments where having fun means everything.
Keep your eyes out for upcoming shows as they are currently heading back into the studio to record new music.